Branson, Bezos, Musk: why are these billionaires, with all their worldly riches, fixated on space travel? The Tesla founder, Elon Musk, argues that in becoming “multiplanetary”, humans might gain “failsafe” protection from the risks of extinction or planetary collapse, while Amazon’s Jeff Bezos speaks of “saving the Earth”. If civilisation perishes on one planet, these billionaires seem to think we have a backup elsewhere.
Bezos, Musk and Richard Branson seem animated by a lofty goal: securing the future of humanity by going into space. Many have dismissed this as billionaire bravado that pays little attention to real, down-to-earth problems such as environmental collapse. Worse, others say it echoes rapacious, historic land grabs. But “going to space” and “saving the human race” are ideas that have long captivated people on Earth. Their shared history shows why we remain captivated by this prospect, regardless of who, right now, are its cheerleaders.
For centuries, the west worked on the assumption that the universe was full of life and intelligence. The alternative – that humans were essentially alone, an oasis of intelligence surrounded by lifeless, barren void – was too difficult to accept. Many presumed other planets were populated with creatures essentially identical to us. Because of this, no one acknowledged that the end of the Earth would simultaneously spell the end of human life. And there was no reason to imagine humanity migrating to other planets to bring life to a non-living universe. Writers imagined making trips to visit other celestial bodies and their humanoid occupants, but not permanently settling these spaces.
But by the Victorian period, some began acknowledging that the destruction of Earth might spell the end of human life in the universe. Scientists started putting deadlines on Earth’s future. They thought the sun was burning its fuel, shrinking and cooling. Writers such as HG Wells suggested that humanity might relocate to inner-solar system planets such as Venus as the sun died. Yet huddling around the dying stellar ember would only prolong the inevitable. Estimates were pessimistic: by the end of the 1800s, physicists predicted there were only several million years of sunshine left.
The first genuine proposals for crewed voyages to other stars came about in the early 1900s. In the 1920s, the British-Indian geneticist JBS Haldane ventured that, should humanity ever settle other star systems, its future – migrating from sun to sun – could be tens of trillions of years long. He warned that if we remain bound to the Earth, our entire future would be only a vanishing fraction of this. Haldane saw that humans might be living at the very beginning of human history, and that their best achievements may lie ahead – if they left their birthplace. But others have been sceptical. In 1962, CS Lewis predicted that interplanetary travel would merely establish a “new colonialism”.
By the 1960s, the question of whether there is life in our cosmic neighbourhood was finally being actively tested. Satellite dishes were scouring the skies for signals of other civilisations. The search has found nothing; only silence. Unlike Wells’s generation, scientists now know there are no advanced civilisations on Mars. The possibility that we are the only civilisation in the Milky Way – and even the entire observable universe – has been firmly established. Space exploration is not a “new colonialism”, in the common understanding of the term, because at least within our solar system, anywhere we settle will be devoid of complex life.
Since the creation of nuclear weapons, human extinction has no longer been a distant prospect like the dying sun that troubled earlier physicists. Nuclear missiles that are capable of destroying our species have made this threat imminent and anthropogenic. In this precarious post-nuclear context, writers and thinkers such as Isaac Asimov and Stephen Hawking have hinted that, if we care about safeguarding humanity, there might be a rush to settle Mars. If humanity eventually becomes “interstellar”, we may be living during the very first infinitesimal of civilisation’s entire history. The peaks and preponderances of what could be achieved may lie in that future.
But in the immediate term, we urgently need to confront extreme risks such as the climate crisis, emerging viruses and the possibility of engineered pathogens. Not only would this improve the lives of the living, but it would also safeguard the lives of everyone who might come after them. Currently it’s only astronauts or billionaires such as Musk and Bezos who are able to fleetingly exit the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s true that Earth will one day become uninhabitable as our sun ages, and that the wider universe will remain potentially capable of supporting complex life for aeons beyond this.
Yet whether humans ever get a shot at settling other planets depends entirely on the actions of people who are currently alive. For this reason, our immediate priority should be safeguarding our environment and ensuring everyone is protected from extreme risks.
We have created the means to destroy ourselves and are presiding over the collapse of our environment – yet we haven’t developed the institutions or collective wisdom to prevent this. Before humans begin embarking on grand, multigenerational projects such as reaching the stars, protecting people from these extreme risks is an urgent task for the present.